Frankenthaler and Motherwell: A Painterly Marriage

Motherwell in white and yellow ochre_Frankenthaler runningscape

(left) Robert Motherwell, In White and Yellow Ochre, 1961. Oil, charcoal, ink, tempera and paper collage on paper, 40 7/8 x 27 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, acquired 1965. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY (right) Helen Frankenthaler, Runningscape, 1962. Oil on canvas, 32 in x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Gifford and Joann Phillips, 2009; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two of the Phillips’s most cherished Abstract Expressionist artists, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, shared more than a style of painting: they were also married from 1958 to 1971. Currently, a group of the couple’s works from the museum’s permanent collection are on display in neighboring galleries. Four of my favorites are Canyon and Runningscape, both by Frankenthaler, and In White and Yellow Ochre and Chi Ama, Crede by Motherwell.

Studying these works in a group, I began to think of the differences in the two artists’ styles, despite the fact that all four of the works were created in the early 1960s. I compared the soft applications of oil and acrylic in both of Frankenthaler’s works to the more aggressive elements in Motherwell’s. Utilizing varied textures, Motherwell’s In White and Yellow Ochre combines mediums with collaged materials, resulting in a harsher design and abstracted contours. In contrast, Frankenthaler uses oil paint like watercolor in Runningscape, thinning it into washes that bleed into each other to create a fluid design. Each of the artists’ larger pieces—Frankenthaler’s Canyon and Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede—also contain these distinctions, Canyon being composed of expansive fields of saturated color and Chi Ama, Crede of jagged applications in dull maroons and browns.

Frankenthaler canyon_Motherwell chi ama crede

(left) Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 46 1/8 in x 52 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (right) Robert Motherwell, Chi Ama, Crede, 1962. Oil on canvas, 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald A. Brown, 1998; Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

What is interesting is that both artists were influenced by the same group of contemporaries: Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They also created these works in the early years of their marriage, when they were likely collaborating and comparing painting techniques. Their differences are thus results of their own personal styles retained throughout their independent careers. Frankenthaler’s paintings are distinctly feminine, whereas Motherwell’s works have a more aggressive appearance of masculinity. This pair of artists serve as a unique look at the female and male perspectives on a specific movement of art.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Van Gogh, Yashima, and Lazzari


Vincent van Gogh, Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 35 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1930


Taro Yashima, Tree, 1940, Oil on canvas, 15 1/8 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquisition date unknown

Today, March 30, we celebrate Vincent van Gogh’s birthday; 2015 is an especially poignant year as it marks 125 years since his death. Van Gogh, a painter whom Duncan Phillips admired throughout his entire collecting career, was celebrated for his modern expressionist painting style. Phillips wrote plenty about his technique, describing him uniquely as, “by turns, Japanese and Gothic.” As an art connoisseur who often drew unprecedented connections, Phillips’s statement may seem farfetched. But in examining one of Van Gogh’s works juxtaposed with both a Japanese painting and a Gothic painting, it becomes clear what Phillips meant.

In his 1888 painting Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, Van Gogh utilizes his characteristic brushstrokes that are at times active and at others tranquil. In the foliage canopying the entryway into the gardens, there is a striking comparison to certain Japanese landscape paintings, such as one in the collection by Taro Yashima, Tree. Though he painted this work more than 50 years later, Yashima perfected the same short marks as Van Gogh’s that activate the singular tree as if it is blowing in the wind. The contrastingly steady pattern of strokes in the grass bed below the tree ground Yashima’s piece with their regularity, just as the almost monochromatic beige in Van Gogh’s piece anchors the garden scene. The green and blue color palette employed by Van Gogh is also similar to that of Yashima, who relies on a neo-impressionist style of juxtaposing darker shades of green next to lighter shades rather than blending them together. Such comparisons make it seem likely that Japanese artists like Yashima may have looked to the masterpieces of the Dutch painter.

Lazzari_Gothic Still Life

Pietro Lazzari, Gothic Still Life, 1943. Oil and casein on cardboard, 25 x 15 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1943

Similarly, Gothic paintings collected by Duncan Phillips completed around the same time as Yashima’s Tree, such as Pietro Lazzari’s Gothic Still Life, evoke a similarly expressionist mood. Rather than a landscape, however, Lazzari’s piece showcases a singular vase of flowers, taking over the canvas centrally and vertically. While the contour outlines typical of Van Gogh’s style are largely absent in Lazzari’s still life, the attention to natural detail with numerous short strokes of paint is apparent. With varying thicknesses of paint application atop the canvas, Lazzari calls attention to the 2D nature of the painting surface in the same way that Van Gogh does. Both Gothic Still Life and Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles are not meant to be exact replicas of the scenes they depict, but rather they acknowledge the fact that these are simply distorted images of reality as interpreted by the artists. Such is a modern expressionist idea that was pioneered by masters like Van Gogh in the 19th-century, clearly replicated by 20th-century artists.

But there is an inherent difference between Van Gogh’s Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles and each of these later works. While Tree and Gothic Still Life are lacking any sort of human presence, Van Gogh’s piece showcases seven faceless figures, some of which are mere silhouettes receding into the background. Even the simple indication of life in this garden scene brings more expression to his painting than what is found in Yashima and Lazzari’s pieces. Van Gogh’s frontal figure dressed in blue reading what appears to be a newspaper gives his painting a story. We begin to wonder why this man is set apart from the people sitting on a bench reading. Is he waiting for someone? If yes, who for? We might wonder why the seated silhouettes have their heads down, and thus question their mood. And we wonder what the woman in the blue skirt is walking towards, and whether or not she has any connection to any of these other people. In this way, Van Gogh’s painting spearheads a dialogue that the works by Yashima and Lazzari do not, adding an element of life and mystery that is perhaps the reason Van Gogh is so celebrated.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Van Gogh!

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Women’s History Month: Hear Her Roar

Mitchell_August Rue Duguerre

Joan Mitchell, August, Rue Daguerre, 1957. Oil on canvas, 82 x 69 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1958; © Estate of Joan Mitchell

March may be coming to an end, but we are surely not ready to finish celebrating Women’s History Month just yet. Women artists have helped to propel contemporary art into the rich field it is today, so I thought it only right to dedicate this post to one of the female artists I find most fascinating from the Phillips’s permanent collection—Joan Mitchell (1925-1992).

Joan Mitchell, born in Chicago, was an essential member of the American Abstract Expressionist movement and an all around fierce character. Sitting pretty in the galleries is Joan Mitchell’s August, Rue Daguerre (1957), an energetic oil on canvas painting, which was inspired by a bustling Paris street. This work, with its rather violent brush strokes and rich colors, is representative of Joan’s work as she was inspired by lively friends (fellow artists de Kooning and Kline) and the cities she traveled between most, New York City and Paris. Having lived in a number of locations, Joan’s abstract paintings expressed her environment and her reaction to them.

I adore how in looking at this painting, one can begin to visualize what Joan was seeing both in her surroundings and how they affected her own psyche. The various shades of brown and black on the canvas could be illustrative of the statuesque Parisian architecture, but also might signify how Joan feels content and rooted in Paris. Perhaps the interspersed strokes of bright, yet subdued reds and blues express the unpredictable French citizens Joan passes daily along the winding streets. I think the magic of this emotive work and of abstract art as a whole is that it’s always up for interpretation.

August, Rue Daguerre (1957) is certainly one of my favorite paintings in the Phillips’s collection. I appreciate how Joan Mitchell was brave enough to express herself through abstract art, knowing critics and the public may never fully understand her vision… and personally, I think being brave is what being a woman is all about.

Aysia Woods, Marketing Intern